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January 17, 2013 at 1:38 PM

Mailbag: Gonzaga, Seattle U host conference games Thursday, NCAA rankings and WNBA news

BYU senior PG Haley Steed drives against Zags junior G Jazmine Redmon
KELLY L COX/US PRESSWIRE

Gonzaga coach Kelly Graves loves statistics. The flip side of one has been tough to compensate.

In the midst of an eight-year West Coast Conference championship reign, GU had four players draft by the WNBA and one signed as a training-camp invitee. The biggest star is PG Courtney Vandersloot, who was named to the 2011 WNBA All-Star game as a rookie. Her leadership coupled with the absence of past standouts like Katelan Redmon and Heather Bowman meant Graves would be starting over this season. Particularly since only two of the current Zags played a lot of minutes in the past, returning starters Taelor Karr and Haiden Palmer being the only to average more than five points. And both of them are transfers.

Games the Zags may normally have won are now defeats, like home loses to Washington State and late breakdowns against then-No. 20 Ohio State. In GU’s eight-year WCC dominance, it only lost nine conference games, three were undefeated WCC seasons. But last year the Zags split games with conference newbie BYU. As the Cougars prepare for a return trip to McCarthey Athletic Center on Thursday, it’s not taboo to think of the Zags having trouble against their new rival, again.

In fact, following the Zags’ 10-4 nonconference finish, the players even pipped up about the challenge in upholding the tradition established at Gonzaga.

“They’ve voiced it to me that they feel pressure keeping the legacy going,” said Graves of the roster that has six underclassmen. “I said not to worry about that. We don’t need that kind of added pressure. Courtney’s last year was just two years ago. We only have three players who played with her on our entire roster. That’s a big turnaround in that short amount of time.”

And it’s not like the Zags have even fallen off a cliff. GU is 13-5 overall and 3-1 in WCC play, losing at St. Mary’s 54-51. The Gaels (11-4, 3-0) and Cougars (12-4, 3-0) sit atop the conference. The starling fact of the Zags not being there shows the kind of expectations the team has in the West.

BYU features noted senior PG Haley Steed. But it’s C Jennifer Hamson, a 6-foot-7 junior, who’s making another splash in her return from playing with the Cougs’ volleyball team. She’s averaging 13.0 points and 8.9 rebounds in starting eight of her nine games. Oh, and that coincides with BYU’s nine-game win streak.

Hamson only scored one point, playing as a backup to Kristen Riley, against GU in last season’s loss at the MAC. That was primarily against WNBA draft pick Kayla Standish, who averaged 16.4 points and 7.5 boards as a senior.

Graves has a young frontcourt to play against Hamson this season in sophomore F Sunny Greinacher (8.4 points, 5.3 rebounds), redshirt freshman C Shelby Cheslek (4.4 points, 5.1 rebounds), and junior C Stephanie Golden (4.9 points, 3.9 rebounds). He’s team suffers from scoring droughts, averaging 66.9 points compared to last season’s 75.1 and the Zags’ FT percentage has dropped from 72.1 during the 2011-12 NCAA-tournament run to 60.9 so far this year.

“We’re making progress, but it’s just not the same,” said Graves, whose team is 7-3 at home. “We’re used to beating teams by 25-40 points. It’s just not that way anymore. I’ve focused less on ‘let’s get this win’ — obviously we’re still playing to win — but we’re playing for improvement and ‘let’s get better.’ We spend a lot more time in practice teaching and practices are a little lengthier because we’ve got kids that need time on the court with their position coaches.

“So, it’s different. But it’s kind of refreshing. In the past, we’ve been a well-oiled machine. We’d come in and get some reps to keep us sharp. Now it’s a lot more teaching and I enjoy it. I really like this team in terms of that.”

A constant that appears to be cemented is the Zag faithful. Thursday’s matchup against BYU is a sellout, GU’s third of the season and 13th in the program’s history. Gonzaga ranks 10th in attendance among NCAA schools in an early count this year, averaging 5,574 in 10 home games.

GU still has its national appeal, too. Its Feb. 21 game at Santa Clara (10-6, 2-1) will be aired on NBC Sports Network at 6 pm (PST). Graves will face Broncos coach Jennifer Mountain, his former longtime assistant and a 1991 GU alum. (SCU assistant coach Stacy Clinesmith, a Spokane native, played three seasons in the WNBA and was a former Storm training camp invitee)

STILL RED HOT: Seattle U hosts UT Arlington (3-12, 1-4 Western Athletic Conference) on Thursday at Connolly Center at 7pm. The Redhawks (8-6, 5-0) remain the sole undefeated team in the league. Seattle U leads the WAC in field goal percentage (41.3), rebounding defense (36.1), assists (16.2) and steals (14.1). Junior F Kacie Sowell leads the WAC in field goal percentage (61.5) while teammate Sylvia Shephard, junior G, leads the league in steals (3.79).

“Some times it’s the little things not the big things,” said SU coach Joan Bonvicini of her team’s improvement after a 3-6 nonconference finish. “It was (associate head coach) Kristen O’Neill who put this together at the Idaho game (the WAC opener). Really simple things. Every time there’s a free throw, you huddle and you talk. Everyone can do that and (senior) Daidra Brown’s leadership has brought everyone together on the court which has carried to off the court. A small thing that if someone dives on the ground for a ball, you’ll see all four of the other players running to go (pickup) that kid. Those sound like they shouldn’t make a big difference, but it does. As we’ve done those things, it’s effected everything on the game and we’re playing with a lot more confidence.”

SU hosts Louisiana Tech (7-8, 3-2) on Saturday at 7 pm. The Techsters are led by WNBA legend Teresa Witherspoon, who’s in her fifth season. Kelia Shelton leads the team in scoring (14.1) and rebounding (6.7).

RANK ‘EM: My bad on not getting this out sooner, darn daily work, but the national polls are out.

My Week 10 National Poll

1 Baylor (14-1)
2 Duke (15-0)
3 Notre Dame
(14-1)
4 Connecticut (14-1)
5 Kentucky (16-1)
6 North Carolina (17-1)
7 California (13-2)
8 Maryland (13-3)
9 Tennessee (13-3)
10 Stanford (14-2)
11 Penn State (13-2)
12 UCLA (13-2)
13 Purdue (13-2)
14 Georgia (15-2)
15 Colorado (13-2)
16 Louisville (14-3)
17 Dayton (13-1)
18 Florida State (13-3)
19 South Carolina (14-3)
20 Oklahoma State (13-2)
21 Kansas (11-4)
22 Syracuse (15-1)
23 Michigan (14-2)
24 Miami (12-4)
25 Oklahoma (14-2)

POW: Here are the Players of the Week for DI conferences represented in Washington.

PAC-12: UCLA redshirt junior F Atonye Nyingifa

WCC: Saint Mary’s junior G Jackie Nared

WAC: San Jose State freshman F Emily Schill

BIG WEST: Montana senior F Katie Baker and Sacramento State G Fantasia Hilliard, Sacramento State

GOLDEN APPLE: The state’s Golden Apple goes to FSU coach Sue Semrau, a Shorecrest HS alum. Her No. 22 Seminoles did take a tumble in standings after two consecutive losses, but were saved by an impressive 86-65 win against then-No. 25 Miami on Sunday. It’s FSU’s second win against a ranked opponent this season and ends a three-game losing streak to Miami overall. Semrau’s team hasn’t allowed a team to shoot over 50 percent this season. FSU (13-3, 3-2 Atlantic Coast Conference) plays at Boston College (8-7, 2-2) on Thursday. The Seminoles are the only team in the NCAA with five players averaging double figures in scoring.

WNBA NOTES: The league published its free agency list on Tuesday. Teams can now start negotiating with their own Core and Reserved Players and any Restricted and Unrestricted Free Agents. Deals cannot be solidified until Feb. 1.

Depending on Storm C Lauren Jackson’s status after undergoing right hamstring surgery last week, the Storm doesn’t have many big holes on its roster. Veteran forwards Tina Thompson and Ann Wauters are weighing their return to honor the final year of their respective contracts. But the core of PG Sue Bird, G Tanisha Wright, F Camille Little, F Shekinna Stricklen are under contract. The Storm is highly likely to return Polish C Ewelina Kobryn, a reserved player, and possibly G Alysha Clark, another reserved player.

As expected, the Storm kept tabs on Australian F Abby Bishop and Czech Republic F Jana Vesela, who are also reserved players. Unlike last season, the Olympians aren’t expected to have conflicts with international play that would prevent them from signing a WNBA contract.

The Storm predictably  released Australian C Suzy Batkovic-Brown, Russian G Svetlana Abrosimova, Hungarian C Tijana Krivacevic, and American G Katie Smith.

Smith could retire, really only wanting to play in Seattle for a possible third WNBA title. Abrosimova has been a late add and could be again, if not signed prior to the 2013 season. Batkovic-Brown had no intentions of returning to Seattle while Krivacevic was drafted in 2010 by Seattle in the third-round. She made one trip to the city but at 22 still needs developing…

Four-time Olympian and WNBA legend Lisa Leslie will be recognized at the BET Honors as part of a celebration of 40 years in music, entertainment and athletic achievements. Chaka Khan, a 10-time Grammy award winner, will make the presentation. The show, hosted by actress Gabrielle Union, already held its taping and will be aired Feb. 11 on BET as part of its Black History Month programming…

The Minnesota Lynx confirmed the passing of Conrad Smith, a longtime chief operating officer. He died of brain cancer on Wednesday.

“Conrad will be incredibly missed,” said Roger Griffith, the Lynx’s vice president and chief financial officer, in a released statement. “He did an outstanding job running the business side of the Lynx organization, and he shaped our franchise into the successful business that it is today. Conrad was excellent at creating a personal connection with everyone he worked with, making him one of the most beloved members of our organization.”

Comments | More in Gonzaga, Mailbag, Polls, Seattle U, Storm, WNBA | Topics: Joan Bonvicini, Kelly Graves, Lauren Jackson

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